Family harm: The confronting severity and scope of New Zealand's 'sustained disease'

Festering behind often picturesque front doors, entangling Kiwis from all walks of life, and ultimately leading to deaths every year, family harm is one of New Zealand's darkest issues.

As stories emerged of lockdowns around the world exacerbating issues within some households, family harm was acknowledged as a concern for communities.

New Zealand's police reported a spike in incidents during lockdown while women's refuges also told Newshub of an increase in demand for their services.

But family harm didn't just become a major problem during lockdown. Nor will it end there, and experts question whether Kiwis comprehend the severity and scope of the issue in Aotearoa.

"I worry there was maybe a misunderstanding for a lot of people that this was a new problem that happened with lockdown. No, it's not. It wasn't," Holly Carrington, a policy adviser at specialist domestic violence service provider Shine, told Newshub.

"It was a plenty big problem before lockdown and lockdown just made situations that were already out there worse for people."

Not only is it a killer, but family harm incidents leave people with long-term physical and psychological scars. About 40 percent of police officers' time is spent attending these incidents - one every four minutes - while one-in-three women will experience violence in their lifetime. 

Legislation introduced in December 2018 created a separate offence for assaulting someone in a family relationship to ensure the crime was "clearly identified and distinguished from other forms of criminal offending". 

Data provided to Newshub shows in its first year, there were 6058 proceedings relating to that new law that resulted in court action. That's about 16 a day. During the same period, there were 1485 proceedings relating to an also newly created strangulation/suffocation offence. 

"Spend a day of any week in Shine's office or any other refuge or frontline domestic violence specialist support provider and you will get educated real quick about how bad [family harm] is," Carrington says.

"We hear [about] just terrible injuries, like what you would think of if you heard the story as being kinda a wartime story of kidnapping and torture. Those are the kinds of stories that we hear, things that people find hard to fathom."

"I worry there was maybe a misunderstanding for a lot of people that this was a new problem that happened with lockdown."
"I worry there was maybe a misunderstanding for a lot of people that this was a new problem that happened with lockdown." Photo credit: Getty.

The scope of family harm

The language used to discuss issues affects how they're perceived, says Dr Ang Jury, the chief executive of Women's Refuge.

Family harm is often described as a "crisis" in New Zealand, but Dr Jury pushes back on that, saying it undermines the long-term nature of the challenge Kiwis face. 

"To call it a crisis is, I think, part of the problem. A crisis is, in itself, a short, sharp thing [which] has gotta start [and] has gotta finish... It is bigger than a crisis and it is more deeply embedded than a crisis. It is a sustained disease within our society."

Natasha Allan, the acting superintendent for police's Safer Whanau programme, agrees.

She highlights how police use the words "family harm" to reflect the problem involving much more than just physical violence. Officers use an "Eyes Wide Open" approach when attending family harm episodes, meaning they consider the wider context of an incident. 

"There might not be violence or might not be the serious violence that we see in some cases, but actually the emotional and psychological impacts on victims is significant. That might be taking their phone off them, constantly wanting to know where they are, taking their car keys. There's a whole lot of emotional impacts outside of violence," she said.

Dr Ang Jury.
Dr Ang Jury. Photo credit: The AM Show.

Dr Jury says people think of assaults and homicides when they hear "family violence", often because that is when there's media attention. 

But she says it's crucial we understand psychological, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse is also used "by one partner to control the activities of the other".

"What we have been trying to do is point out to anyone that will listen that there are virtually no incidents of physical violence or physical harm that occurs out of nowhere. It is always - maybe there is a rare occasion where it is not, but it would be very rare - preceded by other forms of non-physical violence.

"Until we collectively get our heads around what those look like and how destructive those are and how indicative they are for the potential for future harm, we are going to keep going around in circles."

Campaigns like Shine's 'It Isn't Always Obvious' are designed to highlight these different forms of abuse and how their signs can be subtle to friends and family. A series of videos show hints that something may be amiss, like someone checking their partner's messages to keep tabs on them or not allowing them to go out with colleagues.

It's happening everywhere

As this scope of harm can be misunderstood and signs of non-physical abuse may be missed, experts say Kiwis may not realise the issue's prevalence across different parts of our country. 

"People, they see family violence in the headlines [and] they often think it is not happening to my community, it is not happening to anyone I know," says Rob McCann, the manager of White Ribbon, which is advocating to end violence by men against their partners.

Family harm isn't something that just happens 'over there', but within every segment of society, within the rich households, poor ones, in rural communities and bustling towns, and among all ethnic groups. 

Carrington believes most people don't understand how bad it is until it happens to them or a loved one.

"[Shine] does quite a lot of training for different groups in the community. Pretty much every time we do a training there is someone in the room who discloses personal experience with domestic violence and quite often other people in the room who know that person are surprised."

While there are many different reasons family harm occurs, with each victim and perpetrator circumstances being unique, a culture of sexism and patriarchal values has an effect, Carrington says. Women and men often feel as if they must remain in traditional roles and keep the perception of a happy family. 

That means they can feel ashamed or fearful of discussing their experiences - one of the reasons why family harm incidents are underreported in Aotearoa - entrapping them within harmful environments and relationships. 

"Shame keeps [victims] from speaking out. Feeling like somehow they're to blame or it was their bad choice of a partner and they should have known better," Carrington says.

"It is fear of not being believed because quite often their partner is very well-liked by the rest of their family or friends."

"You can't be sure it won't happen to you."
"You can't be sure it won't happen to you." Photo credit: iStock.

McCann says Kiwis are also "still getting over the idea" that it's fine, and encouraged, to ask how others are doing or to raise questions when something seems off. 

Jan Logie, the Justice Under-Secretary overseeing the Government's work on domestic and sexual violence, says family harm is an issue which "drives a lot of other harm", including drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and homelessness.

Yet another reason why it's important to intervene early.

"It may well be affecting people that you love and care about and that you might be able to help people that you care about if you found out more about this issue and you were able to offer them the right support," Logie says.

"You can't be sure it won't happen to you. We all have a stake in our own future as well the future of our family members. Because it is such a driver of harm in our community, that if you want our efforts as a country to be focused on really positive things, we have to deal with this stuff first."

Treating the issue with urgency

Like with other long-term challenges, such as climate change, Dr Jury believes Kiwis are aware of the issue's seriousness, but become "fatigued" by a lack of progress.

"The situation we are hearing about right now is the same situation we have been hearing about for the last God knows how many years. Nothing changes.

"I think the bit where people get lost is that this has been going on for so long that I think there is a sense of not helplessness, but a sense of almost unchangeability.

Maintaining a conversation about family harm and actions to tackle it motivated the Government to establish an executive position focused on domestic and sexual violence, Logie says. 

"Historically, it's true that Government has failed to sustain its efforts towards ending family and sexual violence and that is one of the reasons that this Government created a position, that was in the executive, specifially focused on this work."

"Even when there weren't stories in the media that brought our attention to this problem, that [meant] we would be able to maintain our momentum and our focus on this work."

Jan Logie.
Jan Logie. Photo credit: Green Party.

Logie thinks for a time we "lost sight as a country" that these forms of violence are preventable. 

"I think that is the challenge for us is keeping this work a priority and present in people's minds while not becoming complacent or accepting of that violence.

"When I talk about us getting to the point where we end this violence, it is not unrealistic, it doesn't mean that these forms of violence would never happen, but if it does happen, we are shocked and it is a sense of it being out of the blue rather that it building on all of those other tragic stories that is how it is at the moment."

That means ensuring these conversations aren't just one-offs and don't come to the fore only in times like lockdown, McCann says. 

"This work needs to be ongoing and it needs not to be allowed to slip into the less important work. COVID-19 has upended everything."

What we're doing

Due to the numerous drivers of family harm, there isn't one single solution to ending it. Instead, McCann says, it requires the entire community - from parents, to grandparents, to coaches and teachers - to role-model acceptable behaviour and look out for one another.

He heralds the It's Not Ok campaign as being "groundbreaking" in creating increased awareness of family violence as well as driving change.

Tailoring specific messaging and programmes for individual communities, having former perpetrators speak about the changes they made and promoting clear messages like "It's Not Ok", "It's Ok to ask for help" and "It's Ok to help", the campaign targets not only the behaviour of abusers but encourages victims to reach out and for those around them to ask questions. 

McCann says we must role-model acceptable behaviour.
McCann says we must role-model acceptable behaviour. Photo credit: White Ribbon.

Others efforts to create a more comprehensive response include the establishment of the Family Violence Joint Venture, a collection of agencies working together to tackle the issue with a clear framework. A national strategy is also under development.

Since 2016, Police have been hostingthe Integrated Safety Response (ISR) intervention programme which takes a whole-of-family approach to the issue, working to secure the immediate safety of victims and family members as well as preventing further abuse from the perpetrator. 

An evaluation of the approach, which operates in Waikato and Christchurch, last year found it was having a positive impact on families' lives. 

Carrington says the ISR initiative, which received a $30 million funding boost in Budget 2019, has shown real promise and hopes to see it rolled out across the country. 

"When you look at actually rolling out that model throughout the country, people go 'oh that is a lot of money', but actually if we want to get serious about this issue, if we want to actually tackle it. That is what it is going to take."

The latest investment in Budget 2020 supported the 2018 strangulation offence. It put $20 million towards ensuring non-fatal strangulation victims could access medical practitioners, are helped with dealing with trauma and for forensic services to gather evidence needed to prosecute. A further $183 million also went to supporting specialist abuse services.  

There's a lot to do, but Carrington says we need to keep the issue top of mind.

"[People] don't think about [family harm] until another child is killed and then every time a child is killed the whole country is up in arms and then it dies down again. We have got to keep that momentum. People have got to realise it is only a matter of time until the next child death, the next adult death."

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